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Catching Up with Oscar’s Dark Horses

January 29, 2012

When they were released over the summer, Beginners, A Better Life and Warrior generated a certain amount of Oscar buzz for the performances of Christopher Plummer, Demian Bichir and Nick Nolte. Still, none of them showed great legs at the box ofice, earning less than $15 million each (and less than $2 million in the case of A Better Life) and making them long shots to be remembered come nomination time.

They came and went from theaters so quickly that I missed them during their initial release (I blame the generic titles and maudlin marketing campaigns for their lack of financial success). Yet after Plummer, Nolte and Bechir made the final cut for Oscar nods last week, I caught up with the films via Amazon Instant Video, and while all three have flaws, I can’t quibble with the nominated performances. Here’s why…

Christopher Plummer in Beginners. It’s hard to believe, but the octogenerian actor received his first Oscar nomination only two years ago, for The Last Station. Now, nearly a half-century after The Sound of Music, the Hollywood Hills are alive with talk that Plummer could win for his charming turn as a widower who comes out of the closet in the last few years of his life. (He’s already taken home a Golden Globe and a SAG award.)

Writer-director Mike Mills stacks the deck in Plummer’s favor by giving him a terminal illness and wastes much of the movie with quirky, stylistic flourishes and cutesy scenes between Ewan McGregor (as Plummer’s straight son) and Melanie Laurent (as a whimsical French actress). But whenever Plummer’s on screen, it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. He’s such an old pro—the opposite of a beginner.

Demian Bichir in A Better Life. How did the semi-obscure Bichir—best known in the States for his stereotypical role as a drug lord on Showtime’s Weeds—deny Leonardo DiCaprio an expected Best Actor nomination for J. Edgar? Because the Mexican-born actor puts a profoundly human face on a hot-button issue that’s currently being demagogued in the Republican presidential primaries.

As Carlos Galindo, an illegal alien toiling as a gardener in L.A. in an attempt to make the American dream come true for his teenage son (Jose Julian), Bichir does the year’s most effective slow burn in director Chris Weitz’s earnest drama. It’s a quiet, subtle performance—yet when he breaks down in the final scene he shares with his son, you’d have to be colder than Callista Gingrich not to be deeply moved.

Nick Nolte in Warrior. Nolte’s been nominated twice before, as Best Actor for 1991’s The Prince of Tides and 1998’s Affliction and was considered a front-runner in both cases, only to lose out to The Silence of the Lambs‘ Anthony Hopkins and Life is Beautiful‘s Roberto Begnini. Since then, the actor’s fallen on hard times—and I’m not just talking about his infamous 2002 mug shot. He was reduced to lending his great, rumbling voice to a pooch and a gorilla in the kiddie flicks Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Zookeeper. With Warrior, Nolte reestablished himself as one of America’s most powerful actors. (He’s also terrific as a grizzled horse trainer in HBO’s new drama Luck, as is another of the film’s costars, Kevin Dunn).

Nolte brings devastating poignance to the role of Paddy Conlon, the recovering-alcoholic trainer who reunites with his two estranged sons (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, both superb) in cowriter-director Gavin O’Connor’s overlong but ultimately uplifting MMA riff on Rocky. The scene in which Paddy falls off the wagon after 1000 days of sobriety is acting at its rawest and most vanity-free. The Academy can’t resist a good comeback story, and they don’t come any better than Nolte’s.

Do you think Plummer, Bichir and Nolte deserved Oscar nods? Post a comment!

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8 Comments
  1. I was also very surprised that these films were sidelined so easily – I’m not sure about ‘A Better Life’, but I’m pretty sure that neither of the other two were shown for even a limited time at either of our cinemas here. I can’t wait for the DVD release of ‘Warrior’ thanks to that, but I’ve heard so much about Edgerton and Hardy, it’s nice to hear you speak so highly of Nick Nolte – it really is sounding like an amazing film now!

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by “Warrior.” It’s a real crowd-pleaser. Too bad Lionsgate made it look tacky and spoiled the climax in the trailer.

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